Nabokov's Genocidal and Nuclear Holocausts in 'Lolita.' (Vladimir Nabokov)

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Particularly since the end of World War II and the development of cultural studies as a critical discipline, the integration of fictional and historical work has become second nature to scholars of American literature. In the opening chapters of The Machine in the Garden (1964), for example, Leo Marx conjoins Shakespeare's The Tempest, Robert Beverly's History of the Present State of Virginia, and Tench Coxe's 1787 speeches to the Constitutional Convention as he constructs his case for a "pastoralism of mind" in American letters. In doing so, Marx reports that the economic historian Joseph Dorfman, writing in 1946, once described Coxe as the "Defoe of America," a judgment which Marx himself stops short of endorsing, at the same time that he shares the interdisciplinary predisposition which led Dorfman to make the comparison.

Nor is Leo Marx unusual among post-war American scholars in his determination to explore the intersection of the historical and the literary imagination. Earlier Henry Nash Smith had woven together dime novels, poetry, historiography, political speeches and contemporary journalism in the complex texture of Virgin Land (1950), his study of mythopoeic preconceptions of the American West. Similarly, through the title of his book - History as Romantic Art (1959) - David Levin made the integration of methods and disciplines evident in his study of the 19th-century American historians George Bancroft, Francis Parkman, William Hickling Prescott and John Lothrop Motley. These post-war scholars are the heirs of an interdisciplinary tradition of cultural criticism that traces its origins to still earlier work by Van Wyck Brooks, Constance Rourke and Perry Miller. For readers accustomed to such an intellectual genealogy, Hayden White's disclosure that historical discourse is a sign system, or Dominick LaCapra's polemic on behalf of integrating documentary and rhetorical models of historiography, seem distinctly belated discoveries. Indeed, by choosing to overlook this distinguished scholarly tradition, both White and LaCapra ironically participate in maintaining the artificial barriers between imaginative and historical writing which both of them so vigorously criticize.

In Professing Literature (1987) Gerald Graff wonders why it should have been the case that, in Jonathan Culler's words, American Studies produced only "an interdisciplinary subfield rather than a reorganization of knowledge" (224). Graff himself attributes the failure to what he calls the dynamics of patterned isolation in American universities: the tendency of English departments in particular to add new programs of study to their existing bodies of knowledge without making any effort to assimilate new intellectual perspectives or methods of inquiry into the structure of existing syllabi. In "The Burden of History," Hayden White suggests some reasons why this system of patterned isolation might have been useful: it offered an opportunity, especially for scholars of the 20th-century novel, to experiment with framing new master narratives for the historical imagination that broke with the monolithic coherence of the 19th-century novel. "We require a history," White announced, "that will educate us to discontinuity more than ever before; for discontinuity, disruption, and chaos is our lot....History can provide a ground upon which we can seek that 'impossible transparency' demanded by Camus for the distracted humanity of our time." He also noted, however, that "history can serve to humanize experience only if it remains sensitive to the more general world of thought and action from which it proceeds and to which it returns" (50).

Among modern writers few can match Vladimir Nabokov's personal engagement with the more general world of thought and action to which, according to White, the historian and the artist must inevitably appeal. Among his postwar novels, Lolita in particular represents Nabokov's most formidable challenge to an older ethical and representational world. …